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‘School staff seeing more students who do not have enough dinner money’

More than three quarters of school staff are having to deal with struggling students’ dinner money debt and sourcing food bank vouchers amid increasing levels of child poverty, according to a new survey.

The majority (89%) of people who took part in the research, co-ordinated by the Education Anti-Poverty Coalition, said they believed child poverty in their school has increased in the past two academic years.

It comes as one headteacher said child poverty is the worst she has seen it during her more than two decades in the role.

Mairead Waugh, headteacher at St Philip Howard Catholic Primary School in Hertfordshire, said poverty levels had “increased significantly”.

She told the PA news agency: “It’s widespread. I’ve been a head for 25 years, I’ve never seen it as bad as it is at the moment and the numbers are just increasing week-on-week currently.”

She said at her school, which runs a food bank and does second-hand uniform sales, it is “hitting so many more families that in the past wouldn’t have been necessarily affected by it”.

She added: “In our school it’s not just those that are on free school meals for example, but because that threshold is so low, it’s the next group of families that are just above it, that are also affected.”

The coalition said its survey of 1,023 people working in or with schools in England was a “first-of-its-kind” study into the experiences of head teachers, senior leaders, teachers, governors, teaching support staff, administrators, catering teams and facilities managers.

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said the report’s findings show that school staff “want to focus on children’s development but get side-tracked by dinner money debt” including having to check payments, contact parents and signpost to advice services.

The latest findings come after a National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) report this month said nearly nine in 10 schools in England are providing uniforms and clothing to some pupils as the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite.

Some 79% of staff surveyed in May to July for the CPAG report said they and their colleagues are increasingly having to divert to so-called poverty-mitigation tasks – including referrals to specialist services, sourcing food bank vouchers, hardship grants and children’s clothes.

Among headteachers the proportion rose to 92%, the report said.

Almost nine in 10 (88%) of all school staff surveyed said more families in their school who previously appeared to be managing financially are now struggling to cope amid the cost-of-living crisis, with 68% saying more pupils do not have money for enough food at lunchtime.

More than half (51%) of all school staff said schools had less capacity to support struggling families and children, with staffing cuts cited as one reason for this, the report added.

When asked which policies would have the biggest effect on reducing child poverty in their school, 80% of school staff said providing universal free school meals to all school children, almost two thirds (63%) said increasing the amount of financial support low-income and middle-income families with children receive, and 68% said more Government help for families with school costs such as uniform and school trips.

Free school meals were rolled out to all primary-aged pupils in state-funded schools in London for the 2023/24 academic year, in a move announced by Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan.

But elsewhere in England, only some children qualify for free school meals, including those whose parents are on Universal Credit with a household income of less than £7,400 a year.

The CPAG’s head of education policy, Kate Anstey, said: “Child poverty is ripping through our schools, warping the way they work and jeopardising children’s learning and life chances.

“Staff want to focus on children’s development but get side-tracked by dinner money debt.

“They want the Government to act and get more help to families. As urgent first steps, ministers must widen eligibility for free school meals, boost help with school-related costs and increase child benefit.

“That’s the minimum needed to give staff their time back and prevent millions of children from falling even further behind.”

A Government spokesperson said it had extended eligibility for free school meals “several times to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century”, including introducing new eligibility criteria for families receiving Universal Credit.

The spokesperson also highlighted core schools’ funding which it said is “helping schools to manage costs and best support pupils”, and noted it had provided “record financial support worth an average £3,300 per household” amid the higher cost of living.